I Actually Like Teaching on Zoom
"There may be less human warmth. But there can be more human connection.
By Viet Thanh Nguyen
Mr. Nguyen, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the novel “The Sympathizer” and its forthcoming sequel, “The Committed.” He is a professor of English, American studies and comparative literature at the University of Southern California.
Here’s an unpopular opinion: I like teaching on Zoom.
Many accounts of teaching on Zoom or other online platforms recount its horrors. And much is horrible: teachers and students without stable internet connections or adequate technology; too much intimacy, with overcrowded homes that teachers or students might find embarrassing for others to see; and not enough intimacy, with the human connection attenuated online.
As a college professor, I, too, miss some of the elements of teaching in a classroom, including the intellectual energy that can flow around a seminar table, the performative aspect of lecturing to a large audience and the little chats that take place by happenstance during breaks or after class with students.
What I don’t miss is my 10-mile drive to campus and back. I don’t miss pondering my wardrobe choices in the morning. The relative informality of the Zoom era means that I would feel overdressed if I wore a blazer to teach. And if I don’t wear a blazer, I don’t have to wear slacks. Or put on shoes. Why would I wear shoes inside my house, anyway?
More important, with my smaller graduate classes of 10 to 20 students, I have noticed little falloff in intellectual quality. Looking at 10 or 20 faces on a screen is manageable, and the experience is a pretty faithful replication of a real-world seminar. Breakout rooms for smaller discussions are simple to arrange, and they lack the cacophony of overheard conversations in live settings. My teaching evaluations have been positive if a little less effusive than usual, perhaps because of the lack of human warmth that being face to face makes possible.
Videoconferencing also allows for meetings with far-flung participants elsewhere in the country — or in other countries — that would have been too expensive and environmentally wasteful to convene in the live era. Now it’s customary to have a visitor call in from across the country or an ocean and to conduct seminars with colleagues from around the world. Less human warmth, but more human connection.
I am now teaching about a hundred undergraduate students in a class on the American war in Vietnam. If a lecture is only someone talking for an hour, that can indeed be stultifying on video — but that would also be true in a classroom. Back in the live era, I did my best to animate my lectures by roaming the lecture hall, memorizing the students’ names so I could call on them, encouraging questions and using PowerPoint slides replete with photos, historical quotations and clips of movies and documentaries. Teachers who haven’t done multimedia lectures might reasonably experience an extra burden of work preparing them for Zoom.
But multimedia lectures work easily and even better on Zoom. I no longer have to memorize students’ names — their names are listed underneath their faces. And on Zoom, the students get a close-up of the photos and video clips, and with the lectures automatically recorded, they can review them or, if they miss a lecture, listen to them later.
Surprisingly, the discussions in my video classes have been better than those in the live era. I don’t need to look out at a sea of a hundred stone faces or a hundred blank boxes. Instead, I ask a half-dozen students to participate in a student panel for each lecture; I call on them and ask them questions throughout the lecture, which means the class doesn’t have to listen to just me all the time. It turns out that the students are much less shy speaking on video than they might be before a live audience. Less human warmth, but less stage fright.
Student chatter in class is now also fun. I wouldn’t want students chatting in a live class, but I like seeing their occasional exclamations in the chat window, as when one amazed student said of Country Joe and the Fish’s 1965 song “I-Feel-Like-I’m-Fixin’-to-Die Rag” that “this song kind of slaps.”
Polling students’ opinions is easy, too. I tried to do this with hand-held clickers years ago; the technology was costly and cumbersome.
There are also some environmental benefits to video teaching. Though digital interfacing still has a green cost (a fact that many people overlook), it can be less than that of physical interfacing. As I write this during my office hours, for which no student has ever shown up, I take comfort in knowing that I did not have to drive to campus to sit in an office waiting for no one to come.
To be sure, I’m a college professor: I don’t assume that what’s true for me is true for, say, elementary-school teachers. It’s no doubt true that smaller children need less screen time and benefit from being in one another’s company, while being forced into isolation at home has been damaging to many.
I’m also aware that whether or not one enjoys video teaching as a teacher or student is saturated with issues of temperament, learning preference or ability, access, space, student-teacher ratio and quality of technology (and comfort with using it). But those issues affect live classrooms as well, which means that technology or the lack of it, Zoom or no Zoom, is perhaps less important to a good educational experience than socioeconomic equity, the competence of teachers and the willingness of students.
Finally, I’m mindful that many college teachers are already underpaid, have too many students, are always on call and have no job security. It’s easy to imagine a situation where video conferencing allows for even greater demands on overworked teachers. But again, the problem is not so much with the technology as with an exploitative academic marketplace where the majority of college teachers are not on the tenure track and have become “freeway fliers,” driving from one gig to another on different campuses. At least with Zoom, they don’t have to drive to be exploited.
We are all now participants in a forced experiment in mass online teaching. Many might go back with relief to in-person teaching after the pandemic, but it seems likely that some of video conferencing’s benefits will remain, and that both teachers and students might want to be given a choice about how to mix online with face-to-face learning.
Regardless of what impact videoconferencing will have on our teaching after the pandemic, I am sure college professors can all agree on one thing: We should never, ever have in-person faculty meetings again."
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